Over my dead body
Honourable Folks, sometimes sharing something personal helps the listener to get the picture, polished to gem-like brightness, of emotions buried deep down a smiling face.
I am the son of the mountain, born at the foot of what colonialists described as Mt. Mlanje, days before the State of Emergency was declared in Nyasaland.
I grew up listening to women letting out their sorrows, joy and fury through song as they pounded maize under the fading shade of the mango tree. My mum and her apongo (close friend) were very good at it.
They would attack the same mortar-load of maize, taking turns with their separate pestles while reciprocating on a loaded song with the precision of a military parade. I guess by the end of it, they felt a sense of relief, more like singing a lullaby for oneself because nobody cares.
The nearest I have come to that kind of artistic dexterity is in reciting written poems and verses from books, including the Bible, a skill passed on from alien Christian missionaries to pagan natives through formal education.
Alfred Msadala, the poet of Ten Tidal Waves fame knows what I am talking about. He is the son of the lake with Nkhotakota as, in the parlance of colonialists, his permanent home district. Alfred and I know better that our home is made of every inch of Malawi.
When Alfred and I meet, it is Christopher Okigbo’s poem ‘Idoto’ which suffers. Almost always, the opening glee to our conversation would be:
Before you mother Idoto, naked I stand,
before your watery presence,
At school I learned that Okigbo’s ‘Idoto’ is a tribute to a shrine for a goddess he cherished back home in Ojoto, Eastern Nigeria. But when I recite the same poem for Alfred or when he recites it for me, it invokes the image of an expanse of fresh water snaking its way gracefully almost along the entire length of Malawi from Karonga to Mangochi where it turns into a giant river that runs all the way to Nsanje then proceeding into the great Zambezi.
Lake Malawi is to me and fellow Malawians a God-sent gift, miraculously kept to restore in us both life and hope.
I have no doubt that when the colonialists were balkanising the continent, the lake would not have been spared for us had they suspected the presence of oil deposits in its bed. In Nyasaland, the British were contented to curve for themselves a fish-shaped protectorate around their missions at Blantyre and other parts of the country.
On their part, the Portuguese in Mozambique and the Germans in Tanganyika were more strategic. They grabbed for themselves whatever minerals and ports surrounded Nyasaland, effectively rendering our beautiful country the poorest among its neighbours, land-locked and 100 percent agriculture-based.
Ironically, now that there is real prospect for oil in Lake Malawi, Tanzania just woke up with a start one day, unilaterally re-drawing her map, claiming half of the lake and threatened to enforce her claim with the gun.
Good neighbourliness…as member countries of Sadc, Comesa, African Union and United Nations—makes it incumbent upon us to seek a peaceful settlement of this dispute. Not only our two countries, but also the regional groupings stand to lose on the interest of creating one big and stable market for foreign investment if we start killing each other even before the actual drilling commences.
Back to Okigbo: When provocation made the great Nigerian poet feel itchy where the pen could not scratch, he carried the gun and went to the battlefield where he satiated his hunger for peace, freedom and human dignity permanently. Okigbo got killed while defending something that inalienably belonged to him and his people.
And if an inch of the only place I call home is stolen from me, I will not recite ‘Idoto’ for Alfred. Instead, as Okigbo, I will choose to suffer deprivation of something that inalienably belongs to me and my people over my dead body.